Section 10: Beginnings of East Tennessee’s Suffrage Movement

Woman suffrage was in the national spotlight at the turn of the century, but Tennessee women, in spite of major developments within the movement, were slow to embrace its cause wholeheartedly. In 1889, Memphis organized the state’s first local suffrage league. Then, after years of negotiations, the American Woman Suffrage Association and the National Woman Suffrage Association joined in 1890 to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). It was not until 1893, however, before the state’s second suffrage league formed in Maryville. 

Mary Wilson McTeer (1853-1898), the first woman to earn a bachelor’s degree in Tennessee, led the Maryville Equal Suffrage League. On Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s birthday in 1896, the club held a public event and invited women from Maryville College, as well as members from other local women’s groups. According to a report filed with the NAWSA, almost 100 guests were present. By 1897, the Maryville club boasted 25 members.

By 1897, the year Tennessee held its belated Centennial Exposition in Nashville, 10 towns had suffrage leagues. Suffragists met at the exposition’s Woman’s Building, heard speeches by suffrage leaders from Kentucky and Alabama, and formed a state association, the Tennessee Equal Rights Association. After only two meetings, though, the organization was unable to sustain its initial momentum, and suffrage advocacy in Tennessee went largely dormant for several years.

The movement regained a pulse in 1906, once again in Memphis, where Southern suffragists met and reorganized not only a Memphis suffrage league but also the state’s organization, the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association (TESA). The TESA board of directors realized that the state and local suffrage associations needed to be separate to achieve its multi-level goals. In time, local leagues were organized, beginning with who else but Lizzie Crozier French; in January 1910, she called a meeting in her home to form the Knoxville Equal Suffrage League with herself as its president. To the dismay of the Memphis suffragists, the Knoxville league declined to join the state association, due in part to regional rivalries. In 1911, women from Morristown, Chattanooga, and Nashville followed Knoxville’s lead. 

In 1912, Sara Barnwell Elliott (1848-1928) became TESA’s president, and she distributed to local and state government officials a petition in which she listed the reasons that Tennessee women needed the right to vote.

Woman Suffrage in Tennessee: The Continuing Legacy

by Dr. Carole Bucy, Ph.D. | recorded March 18, 2018

Who were the women who believed that Tennessee, a Southern state mired in racial politics about voting, could ratify an amendment to the Constitution of the United States that would give women across the country the right to vote? Dr. Carole Bucy discusses the women who worked for ratification and the collective nature of their efforts that led to triumph in August 1920, a flame of women’s rights that continued to burn in the years between suffrage and the fight for the Equal Rights amendment in the 1970s. A professor of history at Volunteer State Community College, Bucy holds an appointment as the Davidson County Historian and is a frequent speaker on subjects related to women’s, as well as state and local history.